Satan is back

Francis is giving new voice to an unfashionable perception

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

It used to be said by Catholic priests back in the 1950s that the Devil was delighted when human beings decided that he did not exist. In those days it seemed unlikely that he would disappear altogether from human consciousness because he was so well known — as Baal or Beelzebub in the Old Testament, the Prince of Lies in the New, as Lucifer in the King James Bible, as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and as Mephistopheles in the legend of Faust; but it has turned out that a subtle move from scripture into myth, folklore and finally literature has been an effective way of becoming unreal. Today we hear his name more frequently in lectures on English literature than in seminars on theology. Films about demonic possession and exorcism still send shivers down the spine, but we know it is make-believe. The precipitous decline in Britain in the number of those who believe in God was long preceded by the disappearance of the Devil even from the cognizance of Christian believers.

Is this about to change? Soon after his election, Pope Francis told the College of Cardinals not ‘to give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the Devil places before us every day’. More radically, in his first homily as Pope, he quoted the French author from the turn of the 20th century, Léon Bloy: ‘He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil.’ Bloy was a zealous, even belligerent Catholic: he believed, like Pope Francis, in spiritual renewal through poverty and suffering, and eschewed any compromise with the world.

But who, or what, is the Devil? Even in scripture he is elusive. He tempts Christ during his 40 days in the wilderness; he prompts Peter to refuse to wash the feet of Jesus (‘Get thee behind me, Satan’); and in some translations of the Lord’s prayer, we are enjoined to ask God to deliver us not just from evil in the abstract but from ‘the evil one’ — a personal adversary of a personal God. Jesus makes plain that Satan has his own realm where unrepentant sinners are tormented for eternity: there are around 17 references to Hell in the Gospel of Matthew alone. Hell is mentioned in the Nicean Creed but not the Devil; and he plays no significant role in the Epistles of Saint Paul.


Satan figures in a number of ceremonies: the baptismal vows taken by godparents on behalf of their godchild include a promise to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises. He is to be found in icons, paintings and the statuary of medieval cathedrals. If he is given less prominence than one might suppose, given his role in the Fall of Man, it is probably because the dualist heretics — the Manicheans, Bogomils, Cathars, etc — made too much of him, believing that he and not God was the creator of the material world. Mystics like St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, have been acutely aware of his presence — but it is not always clear, even to the most devout Christian, how he operates in our everyday world. A Catholic prays to God; he believes in miracles — not just dramatic cures in Lourdes but mini-miracles as when a prayer to St Anthony of Padua leads to the finding of lost car keys. Do Satanists pray to the Devil? Are there anti-miracles or modern Fausts who sell their souls?

The poet W.B. Yeats said that the great Catholic historian Lord Acton was a hypocrite because though he purported to believe in him, the Devil was not mentioned in any of the many volumes of the Cambridge Modern History edited by Acton. The Crusaders believed they were defeated in the Battle of Hattin because of their sins: a modern historian would ascribe the debacle to an unwise deployment away from a source of water. Every Sunday in the 1950s, at the end of mass, Catholics prayed for the conversion of Russia. There was no doubt in Catholic minds that Bolshevism was the work of the Devil, and some now believe that the collapse of communism was thanks to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Again, historians may point to other causes; and even though Orthodox Christianity has made a comeback, Putin’s Russia is hardly heaven on earth.

It is therefore difficult to discern how either God or the Devil intervenes in human history. One can point to cases of heroic virtue that seem evidence of the working of the Grace of God and, all too easily, to extremes of evil such as the Holocaust, unknown in any other species, that defy anthropological or sociological explanation and so can only be ascribed to the genius of a being that is actively and purposefully malign. Liberation theologians talked of sinful structures, but according to orthodox Christian teaching, the cosmic struggle between good and evil is played out in the soul of each individual human being: salvation or damnation are personal, not collective. Today we tend to point to world-historical villains such as Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as the epitome of evil; and, closer to home, perhaps to a paedophile priest or a Jimmy Savile. Savile was raised as a Catholic, and in ways his formation followed the pattern of some paedophile priests; but no one would be satisfied now if he excused his crimes by saying ‘the Devil got into me’. On the other hand, in the case of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, whose trial I covered for the Daily Mail, I found it impossible to decide whether he was evil or insane.  He was tried as if responsible for his crimes, but soon after sentencing was sent off to Broadmoor. It seemed to me then that demonic possession was as good an explanation as any.

With Peter Sutcliffe and Jimmy Savile, there is no divergence about good and evil between the view taken by the Catholic Church and that of our secular society.  More problematic is an issue such as same-sex marriage. Most secularists and some Christians regard it as right and just: however when it was passed into law in Argentina, it was denounced by Pope Francis, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the work of the Devil. ‘At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill… but a move of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’

As Pope Francis will surely be aware, a large number of Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, as they do on contraception. Three-quarters of Argentinians consider themselves Catholics but polls showed that 70 per cent supported same-sex marriage. As in Argentina, so too in Britain’s House of Commons, where 47 Catholic MPs voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill. What will Pope Francis do to counter this apparent schism? Will there be a circling of the wagons of the pilgrim church — true believers within, sons and daughters of Belial without? Will bishops be urged to deal more firmly with dissent — not excommunications, perhaps, but the refusal of the Eucharist, as has happened in some dioceses in the United States to those who vote in favour of same-sex marriage or abortion? From what we have already heard from Pope Francis, we can be sure that there will be no trimming of the Church’s core teaching on moral questions, and even as he preaches a gospel of truth and love and shows compassion for the poor and suffering, the Devil will be given his due.

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Show comments
  • Alastair_93

    Yes, two men wearing wedding rings, walking around B&Q on a Sunday, trying to decide on a potted plant for the balcony..

    The absolute horror! Satan must be rubbing his hands in glee at this truly debaucherous, sinful scene.

    And when they get home, they make a cup of tea and watch a Coronatrion Street re-run. Surely, a vision straight from the pits of Hell!

    Never mind the starving children in Africa. Pssht. Like they’re important. And global financial corruption leading to a painfully unequal, dystopian society? That’s so 2008.

    There might be 25,000 hunger-related deaths every day, but did you see those two guys holding hands?! Yuck. Corpses from starvation I can handle, but two guys with beards giving each other a peck on the cheek? Pass me the sick bucket.

    The Vatican is right to keep its ornamental gold — selling it to feed the poor would be a mistake. It’s clearly better suited to being melted down into some sort of device with which we can keep gays at a healthy distance. Which, I’m sure, is what the Vatican is planning at this very moment.

    The real threat to the world is two people who happen to share a Y chromosome, which means they have similar endocrine systems, and we all know that having similar levels of testosterone to your romantic partner is basically the worst thing that can happen. Ever.

  • Simon Semere

    I don’t see why there’s an obsession with same-sex couples wanting to get married. There are civil partnerships and a lot of couples that do perfectly fine without any law-binding agreement. If Religions are so adamant to not let this one go there must be good reason for it. I also think it’s hypocritical (and common) such as articles like this, that it’s the same people who undermine religion who are pro-same-sex marriage. Couples liberal enough to be in a same-sex relationship want to be bound by something illiberal as church doctrine, very mind-boggling.

  • 1965doc

    God is man-made, not the reverse.
    Even if one believed in a god, surely that god is omnipotent, so the devil could not exist.
    However, logic is not the guiding principle of superstition (sorry, “religion”)

    • The_greyhound

      What is it about atheism that attracts the small of brain and weak of grammar? Is it that they ingest their notions from those twin founts of second-rate sanctimonious mediocrity, the BBC and the Guardian?

      • http://twitter.com/TheRedBladder The Red Bladder

        Well it’s the Devil innit? It has long been an established fact that he guides the hand of the Director General of the BBC and keeps a very close eye indeed on the back bench of the Guardian, in fact he often takes an active role in the subbing of copy. He gets everywhere and there is no end to his mischief. Atheists? They all eat from his table and worship at his feet. Renounce Satan and all his works whilst voting only for those who have a clear policy on his removal from public office and roles!

  • Haywardsward

    Work of the Devil? Cognitive dissonance in spades on moral questions is a pope who clams to value the sanctity of life in opposing abortion and contraception while as far as can be seen staying silent while the junta caused possibly up to 30,000 disappeared persons in the period spanning between 1976 and 1983, When also new born children were removed from their mothers to be given to deserving supporters of the junta.
    He then rabbits on, when Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that the passing of a law on same sex marriage is the work of the Devil!

    • spudbynight


      • rob232

        Why do you say that?
        He’s making a valid point.

  • margaret benjamin

    Ezekiel tells us about Satan that he is a fallen Angel. their was also war in heaven Lucifer fell from his place a third of the angels with him he wanted to exalt himself above the most high until pride was found in him.Were told their are three heavens Satan was cast out of the first and is known as the prince of the power of the air.He seeks worship he is rebellious and wont submit to G-d. He disguises himself as an Angel of light, he is very real and at work within the earth today. One day we are told he will be cast into the lake of fire.He tells a lot of people he does not exist and they believe him.

    • JoeDM

      Good old myth, but much better told by Milton.

      • margaret benjamin

        Myth Never its true! You see all the evil at work and were it comes from and should know what spirit is behind all of it. When man fell the earth was also cursed, if you don’t believe that then you also have been deceived. Its not a story go to the old testament and look up all references, if you listen to someone else you may end up with half truths.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michele.keighley Michele Keighley

    I am rather fond of Hel, the Norse Goddess of the Underworld whose job it was to preside over her realm of the same name. So ‘To go to Hel’ was simply to die. Sorry, Satan doesn’t get a look in!!

  • justejudexultionis

    The Vatican would know all about doing the work of the devil…

  • justejudexultionis

    Since when the Vatican been remotely Christian? It is no more than a haven for repressed homosexuals, paedophile enablers and mafia stooges who like living in palaces and avoiding honest work – not to mention being a complete travesty of the Gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ.

    • AndrewMelville

      Well said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Whistance/100001208862336 Richard Whistance

    pot calling the kettle black

  • Raman_Indian123


  • Raman_Indian123

    As long as Europe was Christian and the church had serious power the place was a cess pit of bigotry, Jew-baiting, ignorance, and misery. Europe has become more humane with every step it took away from Christianity.

    That said, Jesus was no Christian anyway.

    Whenever I read these so-predictable Western disquisitions on Jesus I feel very sorry for those of European descent. Jesus of course was a very traditional synagogue going Jew living by the laws of Moses and keeping kosher. He expressly said he was not interested in gentiles. He is not the “saviour” of anyone who is not a Jew. If he came back he would ask:

    “Where is the nearest synagogue? I want to join my Jewish brothers and tell Jewish tales and eat good Jewish, kosher food. How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob ! ”

    Jesus’ explicit lack of interest in gentiles is one big source of Christian anti-Semitism. The man they took to be their idolised father had quite other children in mind: “I was sent to the House of David.”

    Europeans are, religiously speaking, orphans. They have been deprived of their own spiritual heritage by a cruel fate. They have lost their own ancestral story and have had to become hangers on of someone else’s story.

    In the realm of religion all the European has to say is a woebegone: “Me too, me too! Don’t forget about me, Jesus!”

    The civilization of Greece and Rome reached high levels of sophistication but never developed its religious myths to the level of complex theology. Stoicism, which was a very promising move towards a kind of Western Buddhism, had only reached a few intellectuals when a fanatical cult that was an off-shoot of Judaism arrived from the Middle East and managed to take over the Roman world.

    The civilization of Greece and Rome reached high levels of sophistication but never developed its religious myths to the level of complex theology. Stoicism, which was a very promising move towards a kind of Western Buddhism, had only reached a few intellectuals when a fanatical cult that was an off-shoot of Judaism arrived from the Middle East and managed to take over the Roman world.

    It was an intellectual and moral disaster from which the world is still trying to escape. For the Middle Eastern cult had zero respect for intellectual values and tolerance and imposed a ruthless totalitarianism in religious matters. As a result, the West still finds it hard to believe that the ideas of other civilizations have value. Faced with civilizations like China and India the Western question is always: “When are they going to throw all their “native” ideas on the rubbish heap and become just Tom, Dick and Harry with yellow skins or brown? ”

    This chilling attitude is the nihilistic inheritance of the Middle Eastern cult.

    The tame elephant is the deadliest enemy of the wild one. The West having lost the chance to develop its own faith wants India and China to become part of the Middle Eastern herd too.

    • JoeDM

      This seems to be quite a racist message. Anti-western bigotry.

    • andHarry

      ‘Jesus’ explicit lack of interest in gentiles is one big source of
      Christian anti-Semitism. The man they took to be their idolised father
      had quite other children in mind: “I was sent to the House of David.”‘

      Apart from the nonsense in the first sentence, are you not aware of the Scripture supporting the teaching that the message of salvation would be taken first to the Jews who would reject it, and then to the gentiles – as prophesied?

    • margaret benjamin

      How cynical you are and misguided. Jesus is not was! In the gospels it says Jesus said, I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, also for salvation is from the Jews.Also a light unto the gentiles, and to the ends of the earth.Now if your going to quote from the bible I challenge you to go read it for yourself without prejudice.

    • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

      Why hate Christ?! You do know haters of Christ won’t get to Heaven. They wouldn’t like it anyhow. On a different note…..i met an Indian Catholic today….and wished him a happy Easter.

  • Raman_Indian123

    The Devil? Him we always have with us. He is ignorance and hate and bigotry and contempt for the cultural achievements of non-Europeans, and taunting the poor and the immigrant. Those who call themselves Christian the loudest serve the Devil the most avidly.

    • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

      No they don’t. Those who profess themselves Christians are the very best in my view. And so are their achievements. No need to sulk….Catholicism welcomes everybody…..but the choice is ultimately yours.

      • AndrewMelville

        And we Christians would gladly welcome Roman Catholics back to the true faith if they are prepared to abandon Marian idolatry, transubstantiation, idol worship, unhealthy sexual practices etc. oh and of course the old goats: Ratty & Frankie.

        • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

          No deal. The Catholic Church is the One True Faith. You can keep your heresy. Thanks but no thanks.

          • AndrewMelville

            We all believe in the Catholic Church – the one to steer well clear from is the Roman Catholic Church. Ugh!

          • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

            We all believe the Catholic Church is the One True Church of Christ. All others are man-made heresies. I know you are jealous….and so you should be.

          • AndrewMelville

            That’s right – the Catholic Church or in English the universal church is the one true church. One of its components is the Roman Catholic Church – sadly perverted by much man made and invented guff. In its hatred of others (not very Christian by the way) it refuses to recognise other church; however, the rest of us do recognize the Roman Church as part of the universal church (or Catholic Church) – it’s just not a very good part of it. Fear not God will forgive you – and without any intervention either!

          • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

            The One True Church is the Roman Catholic Church. It alone was established By Christ Himself. I don’t want to repeat myself….if you don’t mind!

          • Peter Hirsch

            The church established by Jesus was split by ambitious men into two (at least): Orthodox and Catholic. This was the first schism. The Bishop of Rome led the latter which became over the centuries progressively corrupt. Bishops and Popes behaved scandalously. Dogmas were invented that were not based on scripture but sometimes contrary to it. Practices such as the sale of “indulgences” and masses corrupted prelates and priests at every level. The Reformation was the second schism, when parts of the Catholic Church reformed. The Lutheran and Anglican communions resulted: both are both Catholic and Reformed. The Roman church carried out its own counter-reformation, which improved the state of it and the Vatican II conference improved matters even more. The new Pope, God bless him, has started well and if he goes on as he has started, may make reunification a real possibility. He has told priests to get out more. The way of Jesus is the only way to salvation and Francis tries to follow it: that means washing the feet of the poor. This is an example we all must follow and, so far as reunification is concerned, much more effective, la catholic state, than your attitude.

          • AndrewMelville

            Wrong in historical fact and theological truth. Yawn. You are both wrong and boring – and one suspects a typical Roman bigot. Luther, Calvin, Jesus and I will happily accept your apologies on Judgement Day.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “We all believe in the Catholic Church”
            Speak for yourself. Oh, you were.
            These pious sky pilots aren’t used to being talked back to, are they. Ridicule, abuse, contempt: That’s what they deserve and that’s what they’re going to get in spades. They don’t like it up um.

  • Rampat

    Why are you so sure the tale of the death of this man is historically accurate? Have you no common sense? Jews have pointed out ad nauseam that it was very unlikely that he would have been sentenced to death so abruptly. In any case, for miscreants and trouble makers to be crucified was a very common punishment and no big deal in those days.

    Why should so much be said about it so long afterwards if it even ever happened? All religious fanatics risked such deaths and for the Christians to whine about Jesus is as ridiculous and unbecoming as a soldier complaining that war is risky. It goes with the job.

    One thing that gives the lie to the Jesus story is the depiction of Judas, the archetypal figure of the Jew-as-villain in Christian mythogogy. We are told Jesus was mobbed in Jerusalem; he was a very well known man staying in a very well-known place. Yet we are told Judas needed to be bribed to “point out” Jesus when they came to book him. This is patently absurd, but very revealing. The Judas tale reflects the baseness of the small minds who invented the story. They needed someone to pillory and hate.

    For those who strove to maintain peace at the time Jesus would have seemed far from innocent. He seemed like a very dangerous rabble rouser, and was himself very intolerant, threatening anyone who questioned him with hellfire.

    It was the Jews who were the victims of a very powerful blood libel. Jesus was not the victim, merely a trouble maker by profession who got the normal government response.

    In short, the moral about Christianity – really, Paulianity since Christ was a Jew who only cared for Jews – – is that you either succumb to unlikely stories reeking of blood and hate and hypocrisy and racism or you keep your head, question every claim skeptically and try to make sense of things by the use of reason. It is not for everyone. Not everyone loves the truth. Many will prefer something else to the truth. That is human nature and human cowardice

    • Chris Morriss

      A fairly common view once was that Judas had to point out Jesus because of the presence with him of his twin brother Thomas (Didymus).

      • Rampat

        Or it could be the authorities heard Jesus had had a shave and they wanted to be sure of recognising him. Any nonsense will do when one is dealing with fools.

    • andHarry

      ‘ Not everyone loves the truth. Many will prefer something else to the truth. That is human nature and human cowardice’

      Anon. ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.’

  • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

    How can you understand the history of the 20th century…..without the background of the Devil, Heaven and Hell and Final Judgement. Will all the atrocious and mind-boggling evils of this God-forsaken century be left as just incidents in history….without knowing where they came from and where they lead to?!
    If you don’t believe in the Devil etc…..you don’t understand life.


      When yo eliminate the Devil as being a Spirit out there, and recognize the the Human Spirit is the DEVIL……………everything else makes sense.

  • chiaramonti

    The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist!


      Has the Devil ever spoken to anyone……………ANYONE?

  • Peter Hirsch

    Mr Read should get to know his bible better before he pontificates.

    Peter never was told to wash Jesus’ feet: it was Jesus who washed his disciples, on the night before his arrest. When he came to Peter, Peter refused to let him and when Jesus insisted, said “please – not just my feet but my hands and my face as well”. The devil was not mentioned in the account (in John’s gospel, chapter 13) except earlier where John wrote “By supper-time, the devil had already put the thought of betraying Jesus into the mind of Judas Iscariot”.

    The phrase “Get thee behind me, Satan” comes from Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, where Jesus began to explain that he would undergo much suffering, be repudiated by the religious authorities, be killed and after three days, would rise again. Peter drew him aside and remonstrated with him but Jesus, in front of all the disciples, said “Out of my way, Satan. Peter, you are not looking at things from God’s point of view, but from man’s!”

    She who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair is not named but the incident took place in the house of Simeon, a Pharisee. Her sins were forgive. It seems, from the account in Luke’s gospel, chapter 7, that Simeon was not so lucky.

    Two things worry me: first that the Devil is clearly into Mr Read with the sin of sloth; and second, that your sub-editor failed to see so obvious an error in fact and in understanding. God washes our feet by allowing us to exist, sinners that we are and so shows his love for us. In return we should wash the feet of others and so start the progress of leading them to salvation. That’s what Pope Francis is about in a Roman prison on Thursday.

  • rationalobservations?

    If (BIG IF!) the ancient fictional myths and legends of the OT bible are to believed, “the devil” has an unjustified reputation for “evil”.

    The body count of those murdered by “god” runs into many millions and includes all of humanity massacred in “the flood”. The demand for human sacrifice and the utter barbarity reported to be the habitual requirement for a selfish, petulant, fickle and casually brutal “god” are in sharp contrast to the actual body count attributed to “the devil”. Those with nothing better to do are invited to review the actual crimes of poor old “satan”. In all of the endless tales of god’s persecution, terrorising and mass murder, only ten (YES; ONLY TEN!) people are recorded as being killed by satan. (They are Lot’s children killed when satan brought the roof down on them at a family gathering.) Even then that killing was only provoked by “god” daring “satan”., so even that blood is indirectly upon “god’s” hands.

    All in all and given the death count attributed to a “god” who “created” mankind but then endlessly blamed us for “his” mistakes and slaughtered us without mercy, I would rather take my chances with lucifer! The odds of survival are so very much better and no compliance with foolish taboos or demands to enforce anti-humanitarian prejudices on our fellow humans (on pain of torture and death) are attached to him.


      The Devil is the Human Spirit “God
      said, ‘Let us make Man, in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let
      them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all
      the wild beasts, and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth’

      • rationalobservations?

        You failed to prefix your quote with: “The men who wrote the ancient myths, fables, legends and lies to be found within bibles wrote: God……..”

        It is obvious that (after the 4,000,000,000 year history of the evolution of life on Earth) the recently evolved species of apes we call “humans” have taken less than 1,000,000 years to evolve to anything remotely resembling our current and still evolving and changing physical form.

        At what stage from the early small mammals that scuttled under the dinosaurs feet, through hairy hominids to our current (slightly less hirsute than our other ape closest relatives) form did we resemble the imaginary “god” you refer to?

        Couldn’t it be that those primitive egomaniacs who first adapted prior legends of deities into the one you refer to; actually invented a “god” in their image? That appears to fit the known facts and be far more likely.